Four weeks later than planned, ministers are preparing to lift nearly all Covid restrictions from 19 July. This afternoon, Boris Johnson will lead a press conference in which he will unveil plans for so-called freedom day later this month. At the same time, the new Health Secretary Sajid Javid will address MPs in the Commons. The announcement doesn’t mean 19 July is definitely going ahead; that will be confirmed next week. However, the mood music in government is very optimistic with ministers taking the view that rising cases aren’t an issue as the vaccine has successfully weakened the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
When it comes to the rules that are on course to be lifted, nearly all legally binding Covid restrictions are due to go. In their place, will be a focus on personal responsibility rather than state interventions. The two metre-rule will be axed which means ordering at the bar will return, number caps will be lifted on socialising while rules on mandatory face masks will go. Following a government debate, there will be no legal requirement for face masks on public transport – however, companies could still bring in their own rules for conditions of travel.
As for what is not being announced, there are several thorny areas where internal government debates are ongoing. These include an alternative to the current school bubble system which has seen hundreds of thousands of pupils miss school as a result of current self-isolation rules.
Ministers must also decide the general rules for self isolation after 19 July, with one plan being mooted to allow the double vaccinated to skip isolation. This proposal has raised eyebrows among some scientific advisers who believe it would be unfair to bring in before everyone has been offered a second dose. While it will be a legal requirement to self isolate if you test positive for Covid, there is a debate ongoing as to whether it should simply become guidance – rather than law – for anyone (regardless of their jab status) to self-isolate if they have come into contact with someone with Covid.
In terms of government debates over the unlocking, ministers are in step when it comes to the need to ease this month. They are also broadly supported by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance, who both take the view that there is going to be an exit wave so the best time to have it is the summer once pupils are out of the classroom and on their holidays.
However, if cases continue to rise sharply, not only will the warnings from scientists increase, so could the complications with trying to return to a pre-pandemic normal. For all the talk of learning to live with Covid, if cases soar, social distancing goes and the single-vaccinated and non-vaccinated are still legally required to self isolate, the story of the summer could be mass self isolation for the young.
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